Japanese Culture Books
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Translated by Hart Larrabee
Paperback, 204 pp
The traditional architecture of Japan is, not surprisingly, wooden, but also among the greatest wooden architecture in the world. The oldest exisiting wooden buildings in the world are believed to be at Horyuji Temple in Nara and date back to the 8th century, and the biggest wooden building in the world is also in Nara, the Great Buddha Hall at Todaiji Temple, and yet neither of these structures are in this book.
What we are introduced to is 23 different structures from all over Japan that range in size from a simple ferryman's hut of just a tad over three square meters all the way up to the grand and imposing fortress of Matsumoto Castle. Some of the structures are famous, like the aforementioned Matsumoto Castle or the Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima, or the Kintaikyo Bridge at Iwakuni, but some are not well known at all but are examples that illustrate some of the basic principles that have guided Japanese architecture over the past thousand years.
Each structure is illustrated by excellent photos by Mitsumasa Fujitsuka and a pair of essays by him and by the noted architect and architectural historian Terunobu Fujimori. The essays sometimes complement, and sometimes reinforce each other, but always give insights into what it is you are seeing. There is history, dates and names, and so on, but more about the whys of the building, why it was built that particular way at that particular time. Sometimes we don't know who or when or why, and at those times the essays offer intriguing suggestions and well-informed speculations.
When architetcural terms are used they are explained simply but not patronizingly, and each essay results in a sense of leading us and pointing out to us details that we may not have noticed or seen and what these details actually mean. The book is about much more than just architecture, and puts each structure into the context of its physical environment, history, and purpose within the broader strokes of Japanese culture.
After reading the book you will be able to visit any kind of traditional wooden building and see things that were invisible to you before and understand it so much better.
The book finishes off with a chapter with short articles on the architectonics and engineering of each structure for those that are more technically minded. A truly delightful book that was not only a pleasure to read, but very enlightening. I read to learn, not to be entertained, and it's been quite a while since I read a book that taught me so much. Useful even if you have no plans to visit the specific sites in the book, but essential if you are.
Hardback; 294 pp
Are Japanese youth, so-called millennials, happy? One needs only to read the title and subtitle of Noritoshi Furuichi's 280-page treatise of Japanese youth happiness to know his answer.
The first chapter is rather heavy going but if the reader can make it through the rest of the book he/she will be rewarded for their efforts with a more intriguing, common-man's approach to the subject with forays into some interesting aspects of Japanese history and culture.
Among the most interesting points of discussion are: the causes and the resulting effects of the falling birth rates, current thoughts on Japanese nationalism, the lack of effective protests (especially the flaccid left wing movement), the demise of the middle class dream, youth living with their parents and not desiring more than to be "freeters", and the cultural ramifications of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.
One criticism to this work would be the, at times, glaring lack of a consistent voice from the author. At times, the voice is quite academic, and that is what author Furuichi is obviously aiming for. At other times, it is decidedly less academic.
Furuichi spends a lot of time early defining what "youth" are. This is actually not easy to do, yet it is quite an important issue for understanding the rest of the book.
Despite the 640 footnotes, Furuichi makes a few assertions that could use attribution. For example, he says, "It's a well-known fact that if employers irresponsibly deceive (Japanese youth) with expressions like ‘dream' and ‘worth doing,' young people can become a cheap and expendable source of labor." Is it really a "well-know fact" that is it easy to deceive Japanese millennials?
If you are in a bookstore and see this book, there is one quick way to tell if you will like it. Go to page 57 and look at the graphic there. If you can understand it and find it interesting, you will probably enjoy the book.
First published in Japanese in 2011, then translated and released in English in 2017, 200 of the book's footnotes were added for the English version.
The last chapter, called a supplementary chapter, is the 16-page transcript of a conversation that Furuichi had with a moderately well-known actor named Takeru Sato discussing Japanese "youth."
From the beginning, the author argues his case that despite what is a common belief, young people in Japan are actually not unhappy. While this would normally be considered a positive thing, the reasons for youths' contentedness may alarm some.
You've just found out your sister is coming to visit you in Japan next month, and since you have lived here a few years she will probably expect that you will know everything about Japanese culture. You don't. Daniel Sosnoski's Introduction to Japanese Culture can help. This easy-to-read reference book will give you the basics on many facets of Japan and its culture.
There are eight main sections in the books such as Holidays and Festivals, Arts and Skills, Recreation and Leisure and, for those who don't know the difference between a shrine and a temple, Religion and Spirituality.
These sections are further broken down into 65 one-page explanations of such topics as Tea Ceremony, Japanese Drama (Noh and Kyogen), Puppet Plays (Bunraku) and Geisha, all of which come under the section entitled Arts and Skills.
Some of the topics written on, again always exactly one page, have an accompanying page with drawings which further explain and show in detail what has just been covered. It's a bit of a check for people who breeze through the first page thinking, "I know all of this already."
Sometimes these drawings get out in the weeds a bit. For example, on the page of Japanese houses are drawings of dashi, chozu bachi and shinobi-gaeshi. You probably won't have to explain these to your sister.
The book, overall, is very helpful but there are a few small caveats. For one, it was originally published in 1996, and while that doesn't matter when discussing subjects like where the written languages of Japan came from, it does matter when comparing things like traditional coffee shops with modern (as of 1996) coffee shops. The current Starbucks craze was still around the corner in 1996 in Japan.
Curiously, none of the pictures in the books have captions. The drawings have explanations, but the pictures are left for you to figure out on your own.
Although Sosnoski is credited as the author, there were actually 16 writers who contributed. Some authors wrote only one chapter and some wrote as many as 12 chapters, so as you might expect there are distinct differences in the writing styles throughout the book. Some of the writers are clearly British, and some clearly American, although in the end it doesn't matter much.
The size of the book is also somewhat noteworthy. It is printed as a B5 book, so it is taller but thinner than most other books. It could pretty much be used as a coffee table book, although there are not many uncluttered coffee tables to be found in Japan.
Introduction to Japanese Culture will help you study up so you can impress your sister. If you are lucky maybe she will bring you some namagashi (see page 54).
David Matsumoto's catchy title is sure to reel in more than a few browsers of bookstore shelves devoted to the Far East and/or Japan.
The seven stereotypes he debunks have to do with myths about Japanese collectivism, Japanese self-concepts, Japanese interpersonal consciousness, Japanese emotionality, the Japanese salaryman, lifetime employment, and Japanese marriage. To the uninitiated, surprising conclusions ensue.
Professor Matsumoto first takes the reader on a concise tour of some of the classic writers in the field - those who have helped in shaping the stereotypes he will go on to refute: Lafcadio Hearn, Edward Reischauer, Inazo Niitobe, Ruth Benedict, Ronald Dore, Chie Nakane, and others. These writers have, for example, promulgated various theories on on and giri - to mention but two concepts of obligation - hierarchy and context, shame and guilt, etc. He neatly outlines how these and other, more recent observers of Japan have created the image of a mono-cultural entity that has existed in much the same form for thousands of years - and which many if not most Japanese themselves believe and will with a straight face say, This is how Japan is today.
Matsumoto goes on to note rightly that younger Japanese are indeed different from their elders - and in ways not only related to youth. Younger women in particular have quietly rejected many of the expectations and obligations their mothers either accepted or suffered silently. He also refutes out the myth of lifetime employment, if there ever was such a thing. The institution of marriage - central as it is to patriarchy - has also come under great strain in the last twenty years.
The New Japan is a good primer for students with more than a passing interest in Japan. Several aspects of the book however could be improved. First is Matsumoto's over-reliance on both his own data (almost exclusively of university students) and data that was culled from Asahi Shinbun polls.
Second, Matsumoto's writing can at times be clunky. To appeal to a broader audience, Matsumoto and his editor might perhaps have aimed for a more flowing prose style. The conclusions and assertions he makes, though, are fascinating.
by Chie Nakane
For many years now any list of must-read books for the aspiring student of modern Japan has included Ruth Benedict's Chrysanthemum & The Sword, which popularized the notion of Japan being a shame-based culture, and Chie Nakane's Japanese Society which explored the notion of Japan being a "vertical society", and though it is has been more than 30 years since Japanese Society was first published it is still a valuable introduction to how Japanese interact with each other.
Nakane is a social anthropologist, and her analysis focuses on both the group structure and the vertical nature of Japan's society - in Japan your identity is based on what group you belong to, and your position within its hierarchy, what she refers to as "frame", rather than any individual "attributes" you may have. Using examples from assorted groups: companies, schools, political parties, associations of intellectuals, etc., she illustrates the dynamics of relationships within groups and also between groups, including the sometimes fierce competition that pervades inter-group rivalries, noting when the Japanese group dynamic increases efficiency of a group's aims, or decreases it.
She makes comparisons with other societies, notably the U.S.A. and the Hindu caste system. As she says in her conclusion, Japan has undergone some drastic changes in the past 200 years, but the nature of social relations has stayed fundamentally the same.
Her conclusion also gives a good explanation why democracy has a subtly different meaning in Japan than in western nations and why revolution is impossible in Japan. That Japan is a group-oriented and vertical society is well known, but reading this slim volume will show you some of the more subtle ways it operates and help you understand the pressures that constrain Japanese people in their daily lives.
There are dozens of books on the market offering to explain the sometimes puzzling behaviors of the Japanese by using words and phrases that illuminate core concepts of Japanese society. Many of these books have in fact been written by the author of Code Words, but his latest one stands out from the crowd by the length of the book and the depth of the explanations.
He writes from five decades of experience living and working in Japan and though his grasp of Japanese history and society is strong, he is not constrained by the dictates of academia, and so can for instance date the end of feudalism in Japan as 1945 and not the 19th century, and can openly admit that a major factor influencing western men's attraction to Japan is the women.
There is a certain amount of repetition, but that is understandable - there are only a limited number of factors that culturally condition any society - and that makes it a book that is easier to read in short bursts rather than in long sittings.
One point that is hammered home is the history of oppressive enforcement of conformity that for centuries has caused the Japanese to "act" in ways that contradict human nature and has led to so many of the dualisms of Japanese society; honne-tatamae, uchi-soto, kohai-senpai, etc.
While observing that many aspects of Japanese behaviour are in fact changing, he states that it will take several generations before any fundamental change occurs, a point of view refreshingly at odds with the constant stream of books proclaiming that the latest superficial changes in Japan reflect a fundamental shift to a "new" Japan.
He attributes the continuation of many outmoded forms of behaviour to the pervasive influence of the education system. Many of the terms are aimed at foreigners who must do business with Japanese, and while that is a sizable market, more emphasis could have been placed on behaviour more likely to be encountered by those visiting Japan.
All in all a solid book with a few gems scattered throughout.
What a great idea for a book. Get a grant from the Japan Society to research Japan. Don't speak Japanese.
With the exception of Princess Masako, get to interview just about any Japanese woman you want.
Have a months-long slumber party with Japanese women-famous and not-in which you listen to bitching in English about the shortcomings of Japanese men (it does not seem to have occurred to Ms. Chambers that these women would say quite different things were they speaking in Japanese.).
Sell a lot of books with a catchy title and great cover design.
Grumpiness aside, though, Veronica Chambers, who has worked at the New York Times and Newsweek, does manage to capture the cultural vibe of a side of Japan that is little reported: in the last twenty years Japanese women have changed, while Japanese men for the most part have not.
Japanese men are confused, and Chambers even admits at one point to feeling sorry for them. Still slogging away at the company, the men are portrayed as being a bit clueless.
Japanese woman, on the other hand, are having expensive lunches (thanks to their husband's paycheck) or not marrying or starting great companies. Many have been abroad and "seen the light" of another way.
In chapters on fashion (the whole book is about fashion), tea, Banana Yoshimoto, love, marriage, and work, Chambers draws a picture of a society in flux.
The book is entertaining and an easy read. It could have used tighter editing in places, though. In one of several zingers, Chambers accurately states that many salarymen receive 1,000 a day from their wives - the banker of the family - as spending money. This is then parenthetically converted to "$10,000"! If only. Then we could all pity Japanese men a bit less.
This is an easy-to-read book that appears to be somewhat outdated at times, but for those who wish to read a quick introduction to certain aspects of Japanese history and culture, it is good for background knowledge. Written in a light, breezy style, the author covers a multitude of topics in short, easy to digest paragraphs, giving a kaleidoscopic if shallow introduction to Japan.
At times the author dwells on the "uniqueness" of Japan too much - after all, every country is unique -but his obvious affection for and knowledge of Japan and the Japanese shine through. He refers to the "traditional Japanese lifestyle" but never really seems to elaborate on what this is and what it entails. His rapture over the beauty of Japan's coastlines seems somewhat dubious as much of the coastline is blighted by concrete tetrapods, the result of the economic machine that has spent the last fifty years worshipping concrete. Much of the book appears to be a Westerner's (especially male) stereotypical and idealized view of Japan. If anything, the author's focus on aesthetics and beauty highlights just how much the country has lost in its rush to "modernize." He delights in describing the intricacies of the "water trade," an area in which he appears to be an expert, and likes to reference the many other books he has written.
The author points out how easy Japan is for visitors, with the Japanese going well out of their way to help a foreign guest, something that remains true. His descriptions of privacy (or a lack of) are spot-on and still very relevant, and his comments on the seriousness of Western society are interesting, although his allusions to the fun- and pleasure-loving Japanese appear to be somewhat overblown in present-day Japan, where overwork is a fact of life, and exhaustion, burnout, and depression are widespread.
The book also includes basic Japanese phrases in roman characters for the visitor. This may be an interesting book for the first-time visitor and for some basic background knowledge, but at 150 pages, this book is way too short and of little use to those who would like to read something of depth.
by John Dougill
Author John Dougill has lived and taught in Kyoto for many years. Here he brings to bear his Oxford academic credentials on what is, in many ways, a similar city - a somewhat enigmatic entity brimming with history that holds a special place in many people's imaginations, whether they have ever been there or not. Indeed, this book is part of Signal Books' "Cities of the Imagination" series, which seeks to capture the essence of famous cities as diverse as Calcutta and Moscow. Dougill has certainly achieved this aim in his Kyoto.
The book is billed as a cultural and literary history, and such it is, but Dougill's great enthusiasm for Kyoto enlivens the meticulously researched details to the point of general accessibility. The author is the ideal host: witty, with an ear for the entertaining anecdote; and at the same time effortlessly knowledgeable and unafraid of rendering an opinion where appropriate. The structure of the book is ten thematic strands that approach the city from numerous different viewpoints, thus allowing us to get an overview of the key elements that inform Kyoto without feeling overwhelmed. We begin with "City of Kammu", the eighth-century Japanese emperor who attempted to escape the "straitjacket" of Buddhist politics by moving the seat of power from Nara to Kyoto. After many side excursions to the Cities of Zen, Noh and Tea, among others, we end up in the City of Geisha. Wendy Skinner Smith's elegant line drawings are a great accompaniment on our journey.
This book would be an excellent gift for someone coming to Kyoto, someone who has lived here some time, or even someone who simply has a place for Kyoto in their imaginative heart.
Longtime Japan resident and journalist Robert Whiting's classic book on Japanese baseball is as fresh today as when it was published. The book begins with the arrival of Bob Horner, a 29-year-old bona fide all star who was still in his prime when he arrived to play for the Yakult Swallows. Waiting for him when he landed at Narita Airport were 200 journalists, a team owner who confidently predicted--and expected--that the overweight Horner would hit 50 home runs (Horner was assigned the number 50 on his uniform as a not so subtle reminder), and a year contract worth $2 million. What Horner did not know was how different yakyu (literally, field ball) would be from the baseball he knew in America. The regimentation of Japanese teams, the rules governing many aspects of life both on the field and off--and the adjustment of moving around the world to live in a very different culture--had been and still is the undoing of many players. Whiting's work is about more than baseball and sports; it is about how Japan and Japanese approach things, how that which is imported must first be Japanized. Highly recommended.
by Taro Gold
From the author of Open Your Mind, Open Your Life and The Tao of Mom, Wabi Sabi introduces readers to the "imperfection" of much of Japanese art and craft.
And how this is the source of true beauty and growth. Gold highlights how Wabi Sabi embraces "weakness" and "flaws" to produce beauty. It is a short step from Japanese porcelain and traditional homes - in which goods aged from use were revered as objects of beauty - to human foibles.
Gold espouses a universal Wabi Sabism that celebrates that which is imperfect in all of us. Singing off key, the small "mistakes" we all make - by acknowledging and accepting these, we can according to Gold lead fuller and happier lives.
by Scott Clark
Anthropologists must sometimes endure hardships conducting their field research, often far from home, sometimes in primitive conditions, struggling with foreign languages; it can be a lonely time. So spare a thought for Scott..., who, while collecting information for this book had to endure thousands of hours steeped in hot water in baths and hot springs the length and breadth of Japan. The result was this fascinating little book that documents the bathing habits of the Japanese people.
Any book on a subject as broad as Japan must choose a viewpoint, and bathing customs and culture is a good one as the Japanese differ from many cultures who see bathing as simply a way to stay clean. For the Japanese, it is much, much more.
Combining solid historical research with the aforementioned fieldwork he traces the history of bathing in Japan from ancient times up to the present, and the surprising fact emerges that bathing has always been a communal, social activity in Japan. From the Sento (Public Baths) in towns to the rural farmers who would take it in turns visiting neighbors to take a bath, only the very rich would bathe privately, and until the recent introduction of western-style bathrooms in homes, most Japanese did not have their own private bathrooms.
Onsen (Hot Springs) are also extensively covered. Owing to its volcanic geology, Japan is endowed with thousands of hot springs, and they are among the most popular of destinations for short breaks. Even trips made for other purposes will probably include a visit to an Onsen in the itinerary.
Clark admits that he spends an inordinate amount of time discussing mixed bathing, as that was in fact the norm until the Meiji Period when the government segregated bathing so as to appear "civilized" to the West and its Victorian morals, and the sad fact is that nowadays the Japanese are as prudish and embarrassed by nudity as many other cultures.
In the latter part of the book he explores many of the factors that give meaning to Japanese bathing habits, foremost of which are the notions of "pollution" and "purity". Washing doesn't just clean the body, but also the spirit, and the mind. Ritual washing and bathing are very important, and most major events in life are accompanied by bathing, from the newborn babies' first bath to the cleansing of the corpse.
The book would be very useful for anyone planning a trip to Japan and wishing to be forewarned about customs they will probably need to partake in.
by Heidi Varian; foreword by Seiichi Tanaka
Taiko drumming is part performance, part ritual, part sacred practice. It was originally used to drive away pests from the rice fields and, then, to give thanks to the gods at harvest time. From this start, taiko is now a worldwide phenomenon. The most well-known group, from the western island Sado, tours the world and fills performance halls. The Way of Taiko presents in English the energy and history and beauty of taiko. There is a simple history of taiko, a guide to the instruments and movements. Furthermore, the text discusses the training - legendary, grueling training - and the connections between taiko and nature. At the very end is a useful glossary. Perhaps though the most stunning aspect of the book are the photos. Beautiful indeed. The photos of the San Jose and San Francisco taiko groups are dynamic and alive. For those with even a passing interest, this is a lovely little book. Written in an easy-to-understand style, this is a perfect primer.
Whereas many handbooks on Japan focus on society or culture, Routledge's new handbook combines both into one volume and does it rather well in my opinion. The book's 22 chapters are organized into three sections: Social Foundation, Class, Identity & Status, and Cool Japan, the slogan currently being used by the Japanese government to market its contemporary culture abroad.
The list of contributors to this volume is quite impressive, each being an acknowledged expert in their own field and well known to anyone who has read much on modern Japan. Most are academics but their chapters are written in a much less dense style than is normal for academics while avoiding the oversimplifications of populist writings. Thanks to this "distilling" of the information, the chapters are not too long, and each is followed by a short list of suggested further reading.
The topics covered are what you would expect though they are often viewed from off-center and there are also some additional topics which gives the reader a richer, more nuanced view of Japan. The first section covers politics, religion, education. and law, with other chapters on less studied aspects of Japanese society such as post-war urbanization and a nice chapter on the politics of language in Japan. The second section has an emphasis on the margins of Japanese society, "queer cultures", minorities, and the homeless as well as issues of gender and aging. The choice of the title "Cool Japan" for the third section is a little unfortunate as it is generally taken to refer to manga, anime, and J-pop, and while these topics are covered, the section is much broader encompassing architecture, sports, and cuisine.
This book would be a useful bridge between introductions to contemporary Japan and more specialized writings on narrower fields. Very useful for the general reader who wants a deeper understanding as well as for students.
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